Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Soccer: America's sport since 1970, but transformed in 2026

Soccer has always been the sport of the future in the United States, because eventually, the hunkered down sports hatches that kept America's big sports at home would eventually break down, and not only would this country be a great exporter of sport, but it would import them too.

Or, if you're a believer in "demography is destiny", eventually, the changing demographics of the country would eventually take hold in the sports that America holds closest to its heart. That has already begun to take shape with the challenges that football is facing existentially and the consumption changes of new generations of Americans, larger than any previous to them, but with the 2026 World Cup coming to the United States (and Mexico and Canada), perhaps America's sport of the future for over 50 years at that point may well become the sport it cherishes the most.

The 1994 World Cup is a distant memory now, but still a vivid one for anyone in this country who was touched by the tournament. Watching a rag-tag US group beat mightily favored Colombia, play to two crowds of over 94,000 at the Rose Bowl (and indoors at the old Silverdome), transformed a group of youngsters into soccer fans and players who formed the backbone of soccer in this country as it is now. Soccer in this country wouldn't be what is without the 1994 World Cup, Paul Caligiuri's goal against Trinidad in November of 1989, and Landon Donovan's heroics in two World Cups in the following decade, but the 1994 World Cup sprouted the seeds that were heavily watered in future years, creating the garden that is soccer in this country now.

Said garden was starving for water after the US failed to qualify for the World Cup that is to start tomorrow, but the garden did get a fresh injection with this announcement. As much as it seemed to be a shoe-in that a combined North American World Cup bid would be accepted without much handwringing, FIFA has proven time and again, even in this "new era" that the accepted standard and the obvious answers aren't always so obvious.

Mexico and Canada presence helped the bid get away from more of the delicate geopolitical issues that even if they didn't weigh the bid down all that much were still certainly present no matter who will occupy the White House in the summer of 2026. Their 10 games each will feel secondary to the overarching narrative of the tournament (though maybe not in Canada as much), but some of the decisions made by first Sunil Gulati and then Carlos Cordeiro helped rebuild some pride and prestige in US Soccer that certainly has been lost from the Couva catastrophe in October, to the contentious US Soccer Presidential race in February and then the politicking to get this bid to be successful at all.

And even if FIFA turned over a new leaf after the FBI and CIA came knocking, the reality is that money still talks. This tournament has the potential to be a financial bonanza for FIFA, whose coffers are draining and for a President in Gianni Infantino who needs to fulfill some of his promises to the forces that ultimately determine his fate. But this announcement shouldn't be so much about FIFA and the politics that went behind the vote, it should be about soccer in North America, particularly in this country.

Soccer is a force culturally in this country more than it has ever been because of the rapid globalization of sports and demographic changes that are coming slowly, but surely. This is a country of 320 million people now, and millions more will be around eight years hence. And even if very little brings that entire melting pot together, one thing that can is patriotism. A World Cup in this country with soccer's 32 years of growth since 1994 can mean this sport hits the football exclusive stratosphere, especially if the team does well. For Canada, 10 games in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton could mean the sport has its moment like the 1994 tournament did in this country. For Mexico, the team may finally have the chance to take advantage of circumstances not present in the last 40 years since they hosted the tournament in 1986.

On the pitch, US Soccer is at its lowest ebb since Mexico last hosted the tournament. But considering some of the young talent that has already blossomed, see Christian Pulisic, they will be in their primes in 2026, playing in front of packed stadiums rooting for them, with the potential to take this sport into a new era of popularity. It may never attain the cultural significance that football or baseball has, but it can sure take a step in that direction. And the presence of the tournament will cause further introspection into development at home and how US Soccer and its players will look potentially even more different come then too.

Nothing about Wednesday morning's decision was inevitable, which is something far too oft assumed in US Soccer since 1994 that everything would be. The men's game in this country is reeling a little after what happened in 2017, but the train is back on the tracks now in a big way.

A new generation will be have their 1994 moment and transform the sport in this country in the same way that those kids who were in the stands at the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium et al had 24 years ago. They took the sport from the wilderness to where it is now. Those kids could take the sport to a new cultural place that most only dreamed of when wondering what soccer could become in the cultural and political powerhouse of the globe.

Soccer has been the US' sport of the future for decades, and still is in some ways in 2018. But with this World Cup in 2026, it will certainly be the sport of the present, and the future.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Cup Predictions

Even though the US is not at the 2018 World Cup, the show/circus will go on with plenty of amazing stories to cover on and off the pitch. While the group stage might not be as enthralling as recent tournaments because of who didn't qualify, the possibility for surprises always exists, and when the tournament is hosted by off the beaten path nations, the tournament can often throw a surprise or two.
Here's my semi-uneducated view on the 2018 World Cup, and who will be World Champion in a month's time:

(EDIT: now re-jiggered to consider Spain amazingly firing their manager the day before the tournament starts)

Group A:
1. Uruguay
2. Russia
3. Egypt
4. Saudi Arabia

If it wasn't for Mo Salah's injury concerns, Egypt might have been the favorite to finish second here. But with the injury questions left unanswered, Russia would be the pick now to just sneak through into the knockout stage. Russia has more of their first line talent than they did at the Confederations Cup, but it probably won't change their fortunes too much. If Salah can be healthy by the time the two nations play, perhaps Egypt could pull off a bit of an upset. But with Salah potentially at only 75% at best, it doesn't seem likely that the Pharoahs will advance.

Group B:
1. Spain
2. Portugal
3. Morocco
4. Iran

Even though Spain fired Julen Lopetegui for not telling any of his co-workers that he was considering the Real Madrid job the day before the tournament, it's hard to imagine Spain being that negatively affected by this, at least initially. Fernando Hierro is no outsider to the national team and has said that he won't change many plans for the tournament, and his major task may now be guiding a fractured squad through the inevitable ups and downs that will come. Thankfully for la Roja, their group is not very challenging and their most difficult game is first up. But for a team that looked so good under Lopetegui, it's hard to imagine the sailing being anything but choppy for Spain after everything that the squad and federation has gone through.

Perhaps Portugal are the biggest beneficiary of the entire mess their neighbors in Iberia are dealing with. No strangers to World Cup circuses themselves (see 2002 and 2014), their unity and defensive solidity might help them snatch something from the first game, perhaps taking them to the top of the group, instantly changing the dynamic of not only the group, but the tournament. Their squad outside of Ronaldo is not as talented as Spain's is, but that didn't matter much when they won the Euros two years ago. They may have more challenges from a pure footballing perspective with Iran and Morocco than Spain may, but even after what happened with Spain, Portugal's destiny might not be all that different from when Lopetegui was manager.

Group C:
1. France
2. Peru
3. Denmark
4. Australia

France have not been inspiring in their pre-World Cup friendlies, and Didier Deschamps is not what anyone would call a tactical mastermind. They play too often like a team of individuals, which for a team of this talent level is a disappointment. However, that problem will only become evident perhaps during the quarterfinals, not during the group stage, though a couple of teams here could give them a tricky run. Peru with Paolo Guerrero is a different team than they are without him, and his presence enough may be enough to send Peru through. Denmark have Christian Eriksen, which may be enough to see them through, but he has 22 goals himself and the rest of his team has 44. If another star emerges, they could go through themselves. Australia has a better chance of getting points in this group than they did in 2014, at least.

Group D:
1. Argentina
2. Croatia
3. Nigeria
4. Iceland

Argentina have not looked nearly as good as they should under Jorge Sampaoli, especially considering the time Sampaoli has had with the squad now. Their 6-1 loss to Spain in March is glued to the memory, and that's not a good final impression to have. Of course they have as much talent as anyone else in the tournament, and there's still this Messi guy that may be good at soccer, but these factors haven't come together to help Argentina win anything before, and it's the doubt that recent performances have cast over la Albiceleste that is a major concern here.

Croatia may not have another major tournament with the Modric-Rakitic-Mandzukic troika that has propelled them to becoming one of the better sides in Europe recently, and there isn't much behind them. Time hasn't yet been called on their international prowess just yet, so their brilliance should be enough to get them through. Nigeria have always been one of the better African nations at World Cup's past, and if they can summon what they summoned in 2014 against Argentina again, they could easily make it through again. Iceland's fairy tale story was amazing at Euro 2016 when they shocked the world, but no one will be surprised by them this time around, and the sum of their parts is exceeded by everyone else in their group, sadly.

Group E:
1. Brazil
2. Switzerland
3. Serbia
4. Costa Rica

Roberto Carlos says that this Brazil team has sacrificed a little of its attacking verve for defensive solidity, which may play as sacrilege at home, but to neutral observers is a fresh take for a Brazil team that desperately needs that spine, which they have from back to front now. Casemiro could be one of the most important players if Brazil are to win a sixth star this World Cup. Having Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus also helps too. They're a favorite for a reason.

The race for second is going to be one of the more fascinating battles during the group stage. Switzerland is always solid and has a pedigree of making the knockout stage at big tournaments, especially recently, and they do have some good gamebreakers that Serbia and Costa Rica don't. Serbia's best player, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is going to be a breakout star of this tournament, but the Serbs don't have much beyond him that would concern many teams. And while Costa Rica are always going to be difficult to play against, there's the sense that they won't be surprising anyone this time around, and that they might be getting a little long in the tooth too.

Group F:
1. Germany
2. Mexico
3. Sweden
4. South Korea

Germany will look a fair bit different to the 2014 team that won the World Cup, even though many of the parts will be the same. They'll be playing with true forwards instead of the false nines they used throughout the last couple of major tournaments, which changes how they're going to play in a big way. It also makes them better, and more tactically flexible, in spite of how they looked in some pre World Cup friendlies. Their oldest player is also 32, which tells you a lot as to how Germany continues to be so good.

Mexico always find a way to make it out of their group during these tournaments, and they will again because this is their easiest World Cup group in some time. Germany will probably beat them, but they can easily beat Sweden and South Korea. Sweden don't have enough goals in their team if they get broken down defensively, and South Korea have only player that would scare you in Heung Min-Son, and he doesn't have the Spurs attack with him for his nation.

Group G:
1. Belgium
2. England
3. Tunisia
4. Panama

Belgium have won the "best team with the worst manager" award in their last two tournaments since with Marc Wilmots, they always looked three steps behind their opponents tactically. Roberto Martinez has his faults as a manager, but they aren't going to be as exposed during a short tournament as they are during a long club season. Because of that, we can now focus on how talented they are, and have been, for years now. If Vincent Kompany isn't fit, that could be a major problem, but this is their best chance yet to win a trophy for their golden generation.

England don't have nearly the pressure they often carry with them coming into major tournaments, and perhaps its the skeptcism of Gareth Southgate and his tactics, or that the team is so young and a great generation of youth is coming behind this group, but there is a youthful optimism about the Three Lions in this tournament. That's exciting and refreshing for once. And no Tony Adams, the Spurs players will not be England's downfall here.

Tunisia could be a tricky out for the two big boys here, and Panama will be happy to be here, but in the end will be cannon fodder. Imagine how much trickier this group would have been if Panama was replaced by the US.

Group H:
1. Colombia
2. Poland
3. Senegal
4. Japan

Colombia aren't quite as youthful and exuberant as they were in Brazil, but they are still very, very good. They've looked solid throughout qualifying, and have the potential with their stars to break games open that other teams in this group do not have. Jose Pekerman's tactics will probably hold Colombia back as the tournament goes on, but they should have enough to win the group.

Poland will be very much Robert Lewandowski focused and for good reason, but keep an eye on Arkadiusz Milik, the Napoli forward who also has a fair few goals in him. They could win this group, but they don't have quite enough to overcome Colombia here, and they also have a threat behind them in Senegal, who in their only World Cup made it shockingly to extra time in the quarterfinals in 2002 before finally being felled. They have a good spine of players familiar to Premier League fans and a couple of intriguing forward options in M'Baye Niang and Keita Balde, so it would not be a surprise at all if they advanced, or maybe even won their group. Japan always put in a decent account of themselves at major tournaments, but always end up looking like they have a talent deficit too.

Knockout Stage (in bracket order):

Round of 16:
Uruguay over Portugal (A1 over B2)
France over Croatia (C1 over D2)
Brazil over Mexico (E1 over F2)
Belgium over Poland (G1 over H2)
Spain over Russia (B1 over A2)
Argentina over Peru (D1 over C2)
Germany over Switzerland (F1 over E2)
England over Colombia (G2 over H1)

France over Uruguay (C1 over A1)
Brazil over Belgium (E1 over G1)
Argentina over Spain (D1 over B1)
Germany over England (F1 over G2)

Brazil over France (E1 over C1)
Germany over Argentina (F1 over D1)

Brazil over Germany (E1 over F1)

Golden Ball: Neymar
Golden Boot: Timo Werner
Best Young Player: Kylian Mbappe
Golden Glove: Brazil's keeper (Alisson or Ederson)

After Spain's decision to sack Lopetegui, no changes to this bracket or the Group B standings were made.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The NHL, NBA and the inevitability of expectations

As both the NHL and NBA seasons ended within a day of each other, it gives us a good inflection point to look at both leagues and where they stand after another completed season, and the comparsions are much starker than they used to be.

The NHL's season, and playoffs, were dominated by unexpected and the cinderella runs. Watching the most snakebit postseason team in the last decade perhaps in all sports go up against an expansion team in its first season is quite the marked difference from Cavs/Warriors part four. These Stanley Cup Playoffs were certainly missing something in spite of both the Capitals and Golden Knights doing what they did; the playoffs were filled with more uncompetitive games than usual and the fewest OT games since 2000 (10 to 9) and none after the second round, but no one could see this Final coming, not even in Vegas or Washington. Meanwhile, the usually dramaless NBA playoffs had plenty of it before the seemingly inevitable Cavs/Warriors round four, which for more than awhile wasn't so inevitable at all. One league prides itself on the unexpected, even when a team repeats as champion, and the other prides itself on the inevitable, even with an unexpected path to the inevitable.

The Stanley Cup Finals ended with primal joy from the Capitals who finally exercised all their spring demons and ignited a celebration in Washington that made the Warriors almost muted celebration after dispatching the overmatched Cavs seem like they just got out of watching Infinity War for a third time (complete with mindless popcorn munching). Both Finals series ended prematurely but while in the NHL we were all wanting more, in the NBA we were wanting for something. As soon as JR Smith forgot to look up at the clock, the inevitability of the result was there for all to see. It wasn't quite like that when Braden Holtby made his miracle save late in Game 2 (because the entire world has lingering Caps skepticism that will never go away), but even drawing the comparison puts into the mind's eye how different these supposedly similar leagues are, and how much farther they're drifting apart.

Every move the NBA has made under Adam Silver has been calculated greatness. Major sports leagues are often run poorly and the comissioners are under the ire of the fans and media for ordering the wrong cut of steak at dinner, but the NBA contradicts that at every turn, and for the better. It seems as the league becomes more dominated by three to four teams, the product is more compelling than ever in spite of the certain inevitability of the season's outcome.

Meanwhile in the NHL, Gary Bettman even gets booed when he's awarding the Cup in Las Vegas. As the product on the ice gets better as the game gets faster and scoring has gone up, the league seems less interesting than ever. This magical Stanley Cup final between the two unlikeliest teams to make the final since maybe the Oilers and Hurricanes happened by complete accident. The NHL's staunch insistence on psychotic parity means that the worst Caps teams in years and an expansion team making the Final makes perfect sense in the twisted logic of the NHL's parity. Compared to the NBA, where the Finals series seems inevitable in July, it's a stark contrast. And the contrast isn't just evident in the games themselves.

The NHL's major "social media moments" during the Finals were a football player joking about how easy hockey is to play, and then Twitter promptly freaking and Ryan Miller telling Chrissy Teigen that being a goalie is in fact hard to do, while in the NBA the wife of a GM had burner accounts revealing confidential injury information about Sixers players. See the contrast? The NHL is hankering for casual relevance with just about anyone outside of the hockey bubble, while the NBA seemingly walks into it without trying. It's as if with everything each league does, the NHL's try-hard sweaty insecurity is dwarfed by the NBA's calm coolness at every possible turn.

Both offseasons are going to be dominated by superstar free agents going to market. In the NHL this almost never happens, but the drama of LeBron or any other superstar's free agency in the NBA now seems normal and dominates all the oxygen in sports because that move will dictate the future of a league. If John Tavares had a brain cramp and signed with Montreal, he could easily miss the playoffs next season (or even if he stayed with the Islanders). Watching the sagas will be eminently different too. There will be LeBron speculation and gossip every day from every corner of every alley, while John Tavares speculation is seemingly relegated to the same sort of gossip, but entirely less interesting. People will read into every social media post from LeBron looking for coded clues to see if that means he's going to be Laker or Sixer, while the radio silence from the Tavares camp is almost astounding to watch in today's social media age. 

Even on draft night, there's a stunning contrast in fortunes for the leagues. While Marvin Bagley thinks the assumption that DeAndre Ayton is going to be the number one pick is "disrespectful", the NHL Draft is dominated by one Swedish defenseman who everyone knows is going first overall but can't actually say it because in hockey, you can't actually say "I" in interviews about even yourself.  

Both leagues are swimming in money, and even hockey's miniscule popularity is on the upswing. Ratings from the Stanley Cup Final indicate that perhaps, the leagues fans are shaking their parochial nature, even if it is to just to see if a team that yours tortured finally could overcome their demons (thanks Pittsburgh) or to just watch good hockey at all (hello Buffalo). The NBA Finals ratings clearly showed Cavs/Dubs fatigue after great ratings throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. And while the team that LeBron goes to next year will probably be the favorite to play the Warriors in the Final (or Western Conference Final), even the league's most awful teams are somewhat compelling in a way that the NHL could never get with Arizona, Buffalo, Florida or even Edmonton. But that can't change what has always been constant about both leagues; one tries desperately to be relevant and can't get there, while the other smoothly goes from one success to another without even trying.

Teams not in the LeBron sweepstakes and those not named the Sixers, Celtics and Warriors might as well take the season off while they trust the process, while in the NHL it actually seems to take more effort to be consistently bad than fluke one season into a great playoff run. The teams that tank in the NHL almost never get rewarded for being that bad, while in the NBA, the only way to have any chance if you're not one of the best three teams is to tank and hope luck falls your way once or twice to have a three or four year window with a star before he departs for greener, more lucrative pastures.

None of these observations about the NHL and NBA juxtaposed against each other are new, and none are meant to be a #PleaseLikeMySport take from someone who is firmly in team hockey. But after watching the two seasons end the way they did and the way that they were shaped is the perfect contrast, especially when considering one league is expontentially growing in popularity and the other only knows how to spin its wheels. So much goes into why one league is popular and the other isn't, from the marketability of stars to the presentation and coverage of the games to the accessibility of each sport, but in a time where the NFL's goliath is falling from grace, there should be an opportunity for the one lacking in almost every department to finally take advantage of one that may be open, but they are never able to do it. 

With the NBA, everything looks so effortless, calculated and designed and every almost every decision pays off in spades. The NHL's best moments of the last decade are almost all happy accidents, and when they do make a smart decision, they're burnt into the ground before anyone can appreciate the smart decision itself. That's why the least compelling NBA Finals in a decade plus, even after an unexpected path to get there, felt like a subsuming tidal wave of intrigue whereas the most unexpected of Stanley Cup Finals perhaps ever felt like accidentally tripping over a vein of gold in the Nevada desert, which is something they'll never do again. 

The sports ecosystem would be better if the NHL was anywhere near half of what the NBA is, or is becoming, but a league with so many stars, storylines and a great product to show can't ever seem to get out of its own way, whereas for a league whose results feel inevitable and sometimes academic, it is more compelling than ever.

Gary Bettman may be a basketball guy, but he only wishes his league could do what his former league seems to do with ease, and after the seasons for each league have concluded, there is no easier line to draw between the two than this year.